What's in a Name? Part 2

In the previous post, I introduced the issue of naming conventions.  In this post I discuss how information about Spanish Naming Conventions can help you better understand the names of colonial American Jews and interpret their gravestones.

First a couple of general terms:

  • First name = "given name" = nombe
  • Last name (in the United States) = "surname"  = apellido


Spanish Naming Conventions

Over Spain's history, depending on which culture controlled it, Spain switched between using surnames (apellidos) and patronymics (that is, names based on the given name of one's father or paternal ancestors). By the thirteenth century, however, surnames again dominated and had become hereditary. Surnames were sometime derived from patronymics (versions of the father’s name); yet, once they became surnames they stopped changing with every generation (they became "fossilized"). Other surnames were related to where the family was from (for example the Lucena family from Lucena, Spain), or occupations (Mercado – merchant), or plants or animals (Olivera – olive; Ovejas – sheep). When families were forced to convert to Christianity, many adopted the surnames of their Catholic godfathers, for example Henriquez, Gomez, or Rodriguez. Conversos who were related to or allied with Spanish nobility often adopted the names of those families and even their coats of arms (Malka 73-75). As a result, many of the heraldic symbols found on gravestones in the Atlantic World are shared by non-Jewish Iberian families with the same last name.

Beautiful stone Gravestone of Abraham Senior Teixeira (alias: Diego Teixeira de Mattos) (1701) in Beth Haim, Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, Netherlands with a Heraldic Symbol on it (Jewish Atlantic World Database)
Occasionally family names were fossilized with older spellings (for example, Gomes spelled with an “s” at the end, rather than a “z”). Sometimes I have spoken with people think if their family spells their last name with a final “s” rather than “z” it is conclusive proof of Jewish ancestry. However, since spelling was rarely rigid in any of the colonies during this era, many families (and even individuals) would fluctuate between a variety of spellings of the name. Some names that were transliterated into Hebrew characters show a fluctuation between “p” and “f” even when using Roman letters, as the symbol for “p” and “f” are the same in the Hebrew alphabet (פ). Likewise during this era “y” and “i” were sometimes used interchangeably in surnames. Sometimes Spanish and Portuguese names changed spelling when people moved to a country that pronounced letters differently. For example, the “H” in Spanish is silent; hence, the name “Hoheb” was sometimes spelled “Oeb” in countries in which an “h” was pronounced.

Unlike the English who traditionally only inherited surnames from their fathers, people from the Spain and her former colonies often use two surnames: the first is the father's surname (apellido paterno) and the second is the mother's (apellido materno). Thus Isaac, the son of Leah Hernandes and Moses Nunes would be Isaac Nunes Hernandes. People were traditionally addressed by their father's surname or by the combined surnames.  Hence Isaac would be Mr. Nunes or Mr. Nunes Hernandes, but never Mr. Hernandes). Or to use a more realistic example (since both parents would also have apellidos paternos and maternos), Isaac the son of Leah Henandes Castillo and Moses Nunes Levy would usually inherit the apellido paterno from each parent and hence would be Isaac Nunes Hernandes. Prior to the middle of the eighteenth century, however, individuals sometimes inherited an apellido materno, particularly in an attempt to secure an inheritance (wikipedia). Indeed, in some families children could chose their surnames from among all of their parents or grandparents. Thus, siblings might have different last names. Inheritance of apellidos was complicated by the fact that sometimes parents’ surnames were passed along as a composite in order to reinforce familial connections (Malka 74). This can make locating people in Inquisition records quite tricky.

Since sometimes one’s given name consisted of several names (Malka 74), the conjunction “y” (and) was sometimes used to separate surnames, particularly if one of the surnames might be mistaken for a first name. In contrast, the preposition “de” (or da in Portuguese) meaning “of” was sometimes used to disambiguate surnames and to indicate that the second name was toponymic (a place name). Hence the conquistador Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba name signified that he was of the Fernández clan from Córdoba (in Spain). Likewise del (a contraction of de and el meaning, "of the") was used for places: del Monte, for example, means “of the mountain.”

By the eighteenth century, however, Spaniards were also using “de” to indicate nobility (and ironically for families of conversos who used the “de,” to suggest that they had no Jewish or Moorish blood) (wikipedia). Since the of “de” was at times an affectation, one finds that the same family in the Jewish Atlantic World will sometimes precede their name with a “de” and at other times won’t. Thus, Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca was the son of David Aboab and Isabel da Fonseca (http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com). Notice that his apellido paterno precedes his apellido materno (even though he is Portuguese--more on this in the next post). The “da” before Fonseca is toponymic: Fonseca is a place in Portugal. Da Fonseca was also the name, however, of a noble family, and the name was probably adopted by Jews upon conversion (http://www.defonseka.com/pe0008.htm). Some members of the Fonseca family in the Atlantic World chose to drop the “de” while others maintained it.

In Iberia and the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, a woman retained her surnames when she married. Different versions of this custom were maintained by Sephardic Jews in the colonies: for example in Curaçao, women often used their apellido paterno as a middle name and took their husband's name as a last name. In Newport, children only inherited their father's last name(s) and women took their husband's last name(s) upon marriage.

Here is a concrete example: Hannah Rodrigues Pimentel (1720-1820) was born on the island of Minorca and moved to Curaçao before she was married. She was the daughter of Samuel Rodrigues Pimentel and Sarah Lopez. If she had stayed in Minorca, her name would most likely have been Hannah Rodrigues Lopez. She married Abraham Sasportas in 1735 and kept her name according to both Spanish and Dutch convention. Their daughter was named Simha Sasportas, though if the daughter had been born in Spain, she would have been named Simha Sasportas Rodrigues. Simha died young and hence never married. After her Hannah's first husband died, she married Jacob Rodriguez Rivera in Curaçao in 1741. Her children from the second marriage took the last name Rodriguez Rivera until they married, at which point her daughters took their husband's last names. (For example, her daughter Sarah who married Aaron Lopez became "Sarah Lopez.")  When Hannah was buried, her gravestone was marked "Hannah Rodriguez Rivera." That is, after immigrating to the English colonies, Hannah and her children adapted to local custom and used English naming conventions.

In the Next Post in this series, I will discuss how Portuguese and Spanish Naming Conventions Differ. 

References and Resources


What's in a Name? Part I


Jews in the American colonies were often known by several names that they used depending on the circumstances: a Hebrew name for religious records, a Spanish or Portuguese pseudonym under which they traded with Iberian companies or Spanish and Portuguese colonies and under which they might have been baptized while living as conversos on the Iberian Peninsula, and a Dutch or British version of their name that they used for everyday life in the colonies. Some Jews such as Aaron Lopez gave up their converso name (Duarte) upon leaving Iberia and adopted a Hebrew name for everyday life (Aaron) rather than using an English version of his Iberian name (which would have been Edward). Since gravestones in the Atlantic World often contained multiple inscriptions in different languages (e.g. Hebrew, English, and Spanish), sometimes two or more of these names were united on a tombstone.

Other times, a gravestone favored one identity over another, for example a gravestone might reject a converso name and identity for a Judaicized self.  Thus, on the gravestone of Isaac Nunes we find his name listed as Yshac Nunes Belmonte, with and the Spanish pseudonym of Don Manuel is cast aside. 
Gravestone of (Baron) Isaac Nunes (alias: Don Manuel de Belmonte) (1705) in Beth Haim, Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, Netherlands (Jewish Atlantic World Database)
Gravestones can also provide useful information about genealogical relationships as the father, mother, wife, or husband are often identified in one or more of the inscriptions. Since Dutch and Spanish naming conventions include women’s maiden names or names inherited from one’s mother, gravestones can often supply the link between the different parts of one’s family.

In order to decode Jewish gravestones from the Jewish Atlantic World and understand the familial relationships they convey, it is helpful to know something about naming conventions popular during the era. While British colonial naming conventions were similar to those found in traditional American families today (first name plus a possible middle name, followed by a surname inherited from one’s father), Dutch and Spanish naming conventions differed and were adopted by those who were from or had lived in either the Iberian Peninsula, the Netherlands, or the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch colonies. Traditions for first (“given”) names came out of Sephardic and Ashkenazi traditions, but also were impacted by which cultures Jews lived among. The next sequence of posts on naming conventions is intended to help people understand the significance of what names are used in the Atlantic World.

Reminder: you can browse the Gravestones in the Jewish Atlantic World Database by first name.  This is a useful way to find out what names were popular among both Jews and Gentiles in the colonies.  Coming soon, browsing by Family Name as well.


Why I Love Historic Photos of Houses

As I said in my last post, I have been working on a paper on houses owned by Jews in the American colonies.  I am mainly interested in what houses can tell me about the families that lived in them and the kind of lives they led.  Hence, when I investigate houses, I usually look at a variety of resources, including land evidence, estate inventories, floor plans, as well as actual images of the house. I discuss some of these resources in the Houses Assignment handout, but in this post I will mainly talk about how I use historical photographs to better understand houses.

When I am studying a house, I like to visit it (if it is still standing) and if possible photograph it to get a sense how the house is laid out and how space functions within it.  Yet, I also often rely on insights gained from historical photographs.  Are there aspects of a house newer than I might have thought?  Is my experience of the house today deceptive in important ways?

Historical photographs can help be get a better sense of how the houses themselves and how the space surrounding the houses have changed over time.

This post gives three examples of what kinds of evidence historical photos can provide:
  1. Changes in the landscape due to ecology
  2. Changes in the landscape due to built environment
  3. Changes in the house itself
To illustrate the first two types of changes, I use historic photos of landhuizen (country estates) in Curaçao.  To illustrate the third type of change, I turn to a merchant house in the island's main port of Willemstad.


When I was in Curaçao in May, I was struck by how different not only the landhuizen (plantation houses) looked from earlier photographs, but also how different the landscape looked around them.  Here are two examples.  The first--Landhuis Ascencion--illustrates ecological changes and the second--Landhuis San Juan--illustrates changes in the built environment.

1. Landhuis Ascencion

When I visited Landhuis Ascencion, I was struck by the historical photos displayed inside the house and how greatly the landscape had changed.  Here is one of the historic photos of Landhuis Ascencion that is displayed inside the landhuis today:
Historic Photo Landhuis Ascencion, Curaçao © http://www.landhuisascencion-curacao.com
 And a second one (you'll notice the house has changed too--a big section is missing from the roof!):
Historic Photo Landhuis Ascencion, Curaçao © http://www.landhuisascencion-curacao.com
Compare this to the view looking up the road to the house today:

Photo Road to Landhuis Ascencion, Curaçao by Laura Leibman (2012) © Jewish Atlantic World Database
And of the house itself:

Landhuis Ascencion, Curaçao by Stevan J. Arnold (2012) © Jewish Atlantic World Database
Although many early landhuizen were used for growing produce and raising livestock, over time the estates often became country houses used primarily for recreation.  For me, the differences in the quality of the soil and the amount of vegetation in the different eras was an important reminder that these changes may have been due to ecological shifts on the island (or overgrazing by goats!).

Goats on Curaçao by Stevan J. Arnold (2012) © Jewish Atlantic World Database
Although some landhuizen had hundreds of goats on them in the colonial era, today  the general lack of goats around certain estates has allowed plants to grow back.  Here for example is a view of Ascencion from nearby Dokterstuin showing the lushness of the relatively goat-free landscape.
View of Landhuis Ascencion from Dokterstuin, Curaçao by Laura Leibman (2012) © Jewish Atlantic World Database
As I study the records of the landhuizen on the island, I have become increasingly interested in the changes in the number of animals sold with a particular estate, as changes in livestock populations might indicate changes in the land itself.  Changes in the land impact how the house was used.

Click here for a gallery of more photos of Ascencion from various eras and angles.

2. Landhuis San Juan

Historical photos can also point to changes in the build environment around a house.  For example, historical photos are a good reminder the the number of people who lived near a house or worked on the estates may have changed over time.

Here is a satellite view of Landhuis San Juan today, courtesy of Google Earth. Note the lack of other structures around the main house, though the outline of the walls of the former corrals is visible:

Landhuis San Juan and Environs today in Curaçao, courtesy of Google Earth
The term landhuis itself refers both to the “great house” (kas di shon or kas grandi) and the estate itself, “including the magasinas, or warehouses, a cistern for water,” stables, corrals, guard stations and cells for punishing slaves, the stone huts of slaves (later servants), and kin plots (familial burial grounds). The people (and livestock) that worked the estate were considered so much a part of the landhuis that most sales of landhuizen included not only the land and buildings, but also the slaves, livestock, and possessions associated with the buildings (Gravette 162). For example, when this particular plantation (Landhuis San Juan) was bought in by Elias Pereira in 1712 for 12,000 pesos, it included among other things the 82 slaves who lived there, a sugar mill, 467 cows, 302 sheep, and 374 goats (Emmanuel and Emmanuel 65, 663).

This historic photo of San Juan (ca. 1913) illustrates the way in which the empty landscapes of the landhuizen today is misleading.  How many smaller houses can you count near the great house?

"156. Plantage op Curaçao" (ca. 1913) © Tropenmuseum (Zoomable version)
Each of the small structures around the house is a small slave house (or in the case of the 1913 photo a former slave house) associated with the estate. Here is an example of a historical photo of what one of these houses would have looked like:

Historical photo of "Kas di pal'i maishi Curaçao" from Anthony Loos's Album
Historic photos are an important reminder not to forget the people who literally built and sustained older houses. What role did these extended members of the household play in the life of the great house?

Click here to see a more extensive gallery of images of Landhuis San Juan including a floor plan.

3. Penha House

In my final example of what we can learn from historical photos, I'd like to focus on how historic photos can provide evidence about changes in the house itself, though the photo I'll use is also a reminder of changes in the built environment of houses. In this example, I turn back to the image in the top left corner of the page.

This is one of my favorite early photos from Curaçao.  It was taken around 1890 by Robert Soublette of "De Breedestraat in Punda in westelijke richting" and looks down Breedestraat, one of the central avenues in the older Jewish Punda neighborhood and ends its gaze at the famous Penha house on the right along the waterfront.  As the Tropenmuseum notes, "Robert Soublette (1846-1921) and his son Tito (1870-1938) were at the turn of the most important photographers in Curaçao."  In addition to taking studio shots, they took a fair number of photos out doors, often of the same locale several years apart (Tropenmuseum).  These "retakes" makes the work of the Soublette family particularly useful for studying changes in architecture over time.

Here  is the complete 1890 photo:
R. Soublette, "De Breedestraat in Punda in westelijke richting" ca. 1890, © Tropenmuseum (Zoomable version)

I love this photo in part because we can see a man (on the left) in the street surrounded by goods from the waterfront.  I am also intrigued by the difference from today in the view across the bay.  More importantly for now, though, as we look down the street in the photo above, the house on the right along the waterfront with the arched window facing us on on the second floor is the Penha house

Here is a similar view of the street (ca. WWII?) from Anthony Loo's Album with Penha house in the same location, though seemingly farther away.  Notice the view across the bay has changed:
Historic Photo of Breedestraat, Curaçao from Anthony Loos's Album
To situate you, the view of the 1890s photos is marked on the map below of the Punda neighborhood from the Snoa museum with the blue arrow pointing down Breedestraat towards the waterfront.  In this map you can see the relative location of the fort and the Snoa (Mikve Israel Synagogue).  The Penha house is on the corner of Breedestraat at the waterfront.

Here is the view again along Breedestraat, only in 2010.  Again we are looking towards the Penha house:

Kent Coupe, View down Breedestraat (2010), © Jewish Atlantic World Database
 Here is a closeup of the Penha house today looking down Breedestraat: 

Penha House, Curaçao. Photo by Stevan J. Arnold (2012) © Jewish Atlantic World Database
One of the iconic features of the house is the decorative program in white along the sides and front.  You can see these details in the image above, but they are also prominent along the more famous sides facing Fort Amsterdam and the waterfront (below). 

Penha House, Curaçao. Photo by Stevan J. Arnold (2012) © Jewish Atlantic World Database
Decorations along the front of the Penha House, Curaçao. Photo by Stevan J. Arnold (2012) © Jewish Atlantic World Database
What differences do you notice between the 1890s and 2012 in the house itself (see composite below)?
Composite of Penha house from Southeast along Breedestraat, 1890s vs. 2010
I hope this posting will encourage people researching houses for either family histories or for school to keep an eye out for historic photographs of houses they are researching.  Many of the photos I used in this post are from Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen in the Netherlands, but those researching early American houses in the United States would do well to begin their search for historical photographs in local historical societies and at the HABS collection at the Library of Congress.

Are you researching a house?  If so, I would love to hear about and what resources you are using.


  • Emmanuel, Isaac S. and Emmanuel, Suzanne A., History of the Jews of the Netherlands Antilles (Cincinnati, OH: AJA, 1970).
  • Gravette, Andrew Gerald. Architectural Heritage of the Caribbean: An A-Z of Historic Buildings (Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers, 2000). 
  • Houses Assignment handout



    Families of Note: Jesurun Family

    There are several Jewish families who can be found in the colonial records of many of the port towns of the Atlantic World.  One of these is the Jesurun Family (also Yesurun, Jessurun, and Jeshurun). Jesurun (יְשֻׁרוּן ) is a variation of  poetic variation of the people of Israel, that means "upright one" from the Hebrew word Yashar.  It can be found in the Torah in the book of Isaiah (44.2) and D'varim (Deuteronomy) 32.15, 33.5, and 33.26 (Bible Encyclopedia).

    This Iberian family played a foundational role in the Sephardic communities of Amsterdam and Hamburg.  Early members of the family to settle in Amsterdam included Reuel (Rohel) Jesurun (alias Paul de Pina), Daniel Jesurun who was president of an early yeshiva, and David Jesurun, a poet, some of whose works were published by Daniel Levi ("Miguel") de Barrios in Triumpho del Govierno Popular.  Other early family members included Isaac ben Abraham Ḥayyim Jesurun, the Hakham of the Portuguese congregation in Hamburg (gravestone) (Jewish Encyclopedia).

    One of the more illustrious members of this important family who lived in the colonies was Hakham Raphael Jesurun, the second resident of the Rabbi's house at 26-28 Kuiperstraat, in Curaçao.  Hakham Jesurun was born in Hamburg to the Hamburg Hakham Moses Jesurun, and had been a star pupil in Amsterdam's yeshivot.  His wife was Rachel Sasportas, the granddaughter of Hakham Jacob Sasportas of Amsterdam. The gravestone of Hakham Jesurun (1748) was engraved with a depiction of an angel approaching the distinctive portal of the Snoa: two Doric columns with a verse from Psalms 118:20 above the lintel:This is the gate of the LORD; the righteous shall enter into it" (Arbell 140; Emmanuel 296-7).

     Detail from Gravestone of Haham Jesurun, Gravestone 7h1, Beit Haim Blenheim, Curaçao (Jewish Atlantic World Database)
     Biblical Verse on Western Facade of Mikvé Israel Synagogue, Willemstad, Curaçao (Jewish Atlantic World Database)

    Here is a partial list of some of the ports in which the family lives in the 17th-19th centuries, along with gravestones of selected family members (they also lived in St. Thomas and Panama, though I don't have any photos from there):
    Detail of Gravestone of Esther Hannah Jessurun, Hamburg, daughter-in-law of Mose Hayyim Jessurun and sister-in-law of Hakham Raphael Jesurun.

    Here are some houses associated with the Family:
    House bought in 1880 by Elias Jesurun Henriquez, Scharlooweg 37, Scharloo Jewish Atlantic World Database
     Are you related to this illustrious family?  If so please post comments with any links that you have that others might find helpful!


    Masons, Jews, and Mosaic Pavements

    If you have been to the colonial Jewish synagogues in Curaçao, Barbados, or Suriname, or the (Old or New) Jewish Cemeteries in Curaçao, you will begin no notice recognize an interesting pattern: black and white tiles arranged in checkerboard fashion surrounding entrances to buildings and around the base of gravestones.  This pattern can also be seen in the nineteenth-century Jewish houses in the Scharloo district of Curaçao. It is often referred to by the name "mosaic pavement." (Mosaic Pavement outside Neve Shalom Synagogue in Paramaribo, Suriname at Left.)

    Mosaic Pavement in the Newer Jewish Cemetery in Curaçao
    If you are a freemason, the pattern will seem doubly familiar. Mosaic pavement was (and is) a staple of both Masonic architecture and ritual objects. Masonic carpets and later floorings employed the mosaic pavement motif. used the pavement in the center of their sanctuaries either in tile or on a rug, usually surrounded by a border and with the symbol of a blazing star at the center. Although Masons were not the only people to use this type of flooring during this era, mosaic pavement took on special resonance within Masonic rites and are usually noted in emblem charts (like the one below) and were often used in Masonic lodges during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

    Emblematic chart and Masonic history of F[ree] and A[ccepted] M[asons] / Ramsey, Millet, & Hudson Steam. Lith. Co. (Kansas City, Mo. : W.M. Devore, publisher, c1877). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-02426
    Samuel Lee, Orbis miraculum
    London, 1659
    Masons--like early American Jews--were interested in mosaic pavements for a reason.  Neo-classical marble checkerboard floorings reflected a general interest in antiquity, but they were also explicitly associated with Solomon’s Temple throughout the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. While Amsterdam Rabbi Leon de Templo depicts the interior courtyard of the Temple Mount in his model as paved in uniform square tiles, other scholars of the Temple explicitly used the checkerboard motif for the Temple’s courtyard, such as Samuel Lee in the diagram to the left. By at least 1730, mosaic pavement design (often in the form of a floor cloth) was a mainstay of Masonic Temples because of the pavement’s Solomonic association. When early Masons met in coffee shops, they decorated the meeting spaces with Temple motifs.

    Indeed, until the nineteenth century when lodges expanded their membership and more routinely acquired property, lodges used portable symbols, badges and signs to signal connections to Solomon’s Temple and set an appropriate mood for meetings. Other important Temple symbols used in masonic rites included the Ark of the Covenant and the pillars of Jachin and Boaz (the two pillars in the emblem chart above).  Even the apron worn by masons (such as George Washington below) has been read as related to ephod (apron) of the sacred garments of the Kohen Gadol, shown below on the left of the frontispiece of the Amsterdam Haggadah of 1695.

    George Washington in Masonic Regalia, including the Masonic Apron. "Washington as a freemason," ( c1867). Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-pga-04176

    Seder Haggadah shel Pesah (Passover Haggadah) (Amsterdam, 1695). Library of Congress, Hebraic Collection.

    To learn more about connections between Jews and Masons, see my earlier post on Masonic Jews and my chapter on  "The Secret Lives of Men" in Messianism, Secrecy, & Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life (2012).  In my book, I talk about some of the key differences between the Jewish and Masonic uses of mosaic pavement, and the reasons why freemasonry was popular among early American Jews.


    Rabbi's Houses in Colonial America

    I have been thinking lately about Rabbi's houses in colonial America, in part because I will be speaking about early American Jewish houses at the AJS (Association for Jewish Studies) Conference in December, and in part because I have been transcribing a section of the minute books of Congregation Nidhe Israel in Barbados in which the Rabbi, his house, and his household keep getting mentioned.  Today the historical Rabbi's house in Curaçao is a tranquil oasis, but apparently during the colonial era the houses were vibrant places to visit or live.

    In Curaçao, like in Barbados, Suriname, and Amsterdam, the Rabbi's house was part of the synagogue complex that also included a mikveh (ritual bath), school space, and the synagogue itself, called the “Snoa” in Curaçao and Esnoga in Amsterdam (Ladino: אסנוגה).  Although the house in Barbados has been destroyed, the Rabbi's house in Curaçao is still standing and is beautifully maintained as part of the exquisite Jewish Historical Museum.

    Panorama of the Rabbi's House on Kuiperstraat (Stevan J. Arnold, ©2012)

    Detail (Stevan J. Arnold, ©2012)

    The Rabbi’s House was built in 1728 at 26-28 Kuiperstraat, in the heart of the older Punda neighborhood.  Although it became part of the a group of buildings that now form the synagogue complex, the house predated the placement of the synagogue: as the Jewish population on the island flourished, the congregation outgrew its initial space and moved in successively in 1671-75, 1681, 1690, 1703. In 1729 the fifth synagogue was destroyed in order to build the sixth (and final synagogue) adjacent to the Rabbi’s home.  Although early on a house was adapted to meet the congregation’s needs, both in 1703 and 1732, the community built a structure explicitly as a synagogue. The current house was likewise an extension of a predecessor.  In 1704 the Mahamad (Board of directors or council of elders of a Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue) bought a larger house for Rabbi Eliau (Elijah) Lopez and his successors.  This house was “revised” in 1728, the date it now bears (Emmanuel & Emmanuel, History, 51, 87-88, 93-95, 120-24, 143, 1163).  Unlike Merchant houses, which often housed offices or goods for sale and were located near the wharf, the “business” of the Rabbi’s house was primarily ritual and liturgical. By the 1730s the Snoa had to compete with a second synagogue and Jewish school in Otrobanda, though the Snoa complex still laid claim to being the house of the Island's Rabbi.

    Panorama of the Rabbi's House (Photo by Stevan J. Arnold, ©2012)
    Architecturally the house shares many features with its neighbors, including the graceful balconies (shown above and below) that were so popular in the Punda neighborhood during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that helped keep residents cooler. Like Amsterdam’s canal houses, older houses in Curaçao were usually built with brick.  Unlike in Amsterdam, however, where the brick was left exposed, in Curaçao the brick was typically covered in plaster or stucco (Winkel-151-55).The plaster was then whitewashed or painted in a “bright bold palette” not favored in the Netherlands.  Allegedly houses began to be painted because an early governor found the white-washed buildings “fatiguing to the eye” due to the way the reflected the tropical sunlight.

    Balcony of the Rabbi's House (Photo Stevan J. Arnold, ©2012)
    To visit this lovely historical house, pay the small entrance fee and enter through the main gates of the Snoa.

    • http://www.curacaomonuments.org 
    • Emmanuel, Isaac S. and Emmanuel, Suzanne A., History of the Jews of the Netherlands Antilles (Cincinnati, OH: AJA, 1970). 
    • Winkel, Pauline Pruneti, Scharloo: A Nineteenth Century Quarter of Willemstad, Curaçao: Historical Architecture and its Background (Florence: Edizioni Poligrafico Fiorentino, 1987).


    Gravestone Resources

    The Jewish Atlantic World Database has over 3,000 photos of gravestones.  Most of these are Jewish gravestones, though there are also stones from a slave cemetery in Newport and a Creole Cemetery in Suriname.  I have included in the database handouts for using gravestones in the classroom or for genealogical research on the resources page. For an introduction on why scholars use gravestones and what to look for in gravestones watch these short webinars:



    Jewish Atlantic World Database Now on the Web!

    The Jewish Atlantic World Database is now open and free to use! In the collection, you will find over 5,000 images related to Jewish life in early America.  The database includes both photos of material culture (gravestones, ritual baths, synagogues, houses, furniture, etc.) and archival documents (probate records and land evidence) from many of the key ports where Jews settled in North America and the Caribbean, as well as several crucial ports from which they immigrated (Amsterdam, London, Hamburg).  Also included in the database are samples of non-Jewish (and later Jewish) artifacts to allow students to better assess what made Jewish life distinctive.  Keywords allow visitors to connect artifact to other items related to the same individual, family, ethnic group, location, port town, or theme.  Right now you can browse or search, or look for records by the individual's name.  Soon we hope to have a complete list of family names to browse as well.  You will also find resources to help you analyze the objects in the database or to use in the classroom.  Looking for something or someone and can't find it/them?  Let me know, as we are still adding items to the database each week!  Here are some important colonial Jewish families you will find in the database: Lopez, Henriquez, Senior, Curiel, Gomez, Hoheb, Hart, Rivera, Maduro, Seixas, and many many others.

    Book coverThis collection began when I was doing research for Messianism, Secrecy, and Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life.  In this book, I am interested in the ways in which colonial American Judaism was as much an embodied religion as it was a textual or faith-based practice.  That is, I argue that we should think of colonial American Jews as a “people of the body” as well as a “people of the book,” and I look to the ways that everyday objects helped define and create Jewish identity. By sharing the images used to create this book, I hope to enable students, scholars, and family historians to trace the paths that early American Jews (and their objects) took, as well as to gain a richer sense of their everyday lives.

    If you would like to learn more about the religious life of early American Jews and the objects they used, please feel free to order a copy of Messianism, Secrecy, and Mysticism: A New Interpretation of Early American Jewish Life from ISBS or Amazon.com. Purchase of the book is optional, however; this website is freely available to the public as an educational, not-for-profit tool for teaching and learning.

    Landhuis Klein Santa Marta (ca. 1700), Curacao. Home of Aaron Levy Maduro (1709-19); Jacob Joshua Naar (1819-56), and Joseph Jacob Henriquez (1856-62)


    Can You Solve This Genealogy Question?

    I have a genealogy mystery question for you! Those who are interested in Sephardic Genealogy will know that traditionally Sephardic Jews often named their children following a strict naming pattern:

    1. Firstborn son named after paternal grandfather
    2. Second son after maternal grandfather
    3. First daughter named after paternal grandmother
    4. Second daughter after maternal grandmother
    5. Next child after the paternal uncle or aunt,
    6. Next child named after maternal uncle/aunt,
    7. And so forth (Malka 77-78).

    Yet, in the Portuguese Jewish cemetery of Amsterdam, we find a relatively larger number of men named Abraham v'Abraham (Abraham son of Abraham) while only 14 men who were Moses were Moses v'Moses (Moses son of Moses) (out of 27,764 records).

    How might we explain why more men named Abraham seem to have been named for their fathers?

    A prize will go to the person who posts the best answer below in the comments!

    For answers to this question and others, join me for a two-part Jewish genealogy workshop in Seattle on Mercer Island on Monday Jan. 9th with the Jewish Genealogical Society of Washington State.
    Part 1: Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews in the Americas, 1620-1820
    Part 2: Tracing Family History Through Architecture.

    Malka, Jeffrey S. Sephardic Genealogy. Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu Inc., 2002.

    Photo detail of the gravestone of Abraham, son of Benjamin Senior (1727) by Laura Leibman, from the Beth Haim Ouderkerk aan de Amstel


    Rabbis of Renown: The Ramchal

    I am an unabashed fan of the Ramchal--Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746). He is one of those authors whose works I return to again and again. Yet, I often feel like there are two Ramchals. There is the tzaddik who spawned the modern mussar (ethics) movement who work is taught in orthodox yeshivot around the world. Then, there is the sometimes heretical, messianic mystic studied by academics. Can these be the same person?

    Recent publications of some of the Ramchal's mystical masterpieces (including 138 Openings of Wisdom and Secrets of the Future Temple: Mishkney Elyon) by Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum have begun to close this gap, by showing the importance of the Ramchal as a mystical thinker as well as ethical philosopher. In my own scholarship, I've tried to understand why the Ramchal became such a crucial figure for mainstream Judaism by looking to how he reveals the logic of mysticism and how he answers the fundamental theological questions of his era.

    Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) was born in Padua (Italy) and died in Acre, near Tiberius (Israel). In between, he settled in Amsterdam where he wrote many of his most famous works, including Mesillat Yesharim (The Path of the Just) and possibly Derech haShem (The Way of G-d). These works answered a basic need in the Sephardic community, particularly the questions raised by the large numbers of conversos arriving in Amsterdam due to late waves of the Inquisition. These are questions that still plague us today. Do our acts matter for salvation? How can we gain knowledge of God’s plan? What is the relationship between the physical realm and the spiritual? What is the meaning and purpose of life? If God is in charge of the universe, how can I have free will?

    The Ramchal’s writings were (and are) powerful because they addressed the great questions and concerns of his day; moreover, his answers revealed that the major “threats” to Jewish practice were not as threatening as people might have thought. Thus it should not surprise us, that works like Mesillat Yesharim and Derech haShem were almost immediately accepted as central formulations of Jewish belief, despite the fact that the Ramchal authored other more controversial messianic manuscripts.

    Ramchal Synagogue in Acre © Yourway

    Like any good fan, as soon as there is another edition of one the Ramchal's books, I rush out to get it. Hence I was thrilled when my copy of the Ofeq Institute's Complete Mesillat Yesharim arrived. I own several other versions of Mesillat Yesharim, but this version is already by far my favorite. I suspect that the new Ofeq edition of The Complete Mesillat Yesharim (superbly edited and translated by Avraham Shoshana) will appeal to readers new to the Ramchal as well as fans like myself.

    The edition has many strengths. First, the translation is lively and very readable. Second, the notes are excellent and insightful, but not intrusive. Third, the introduction is succinct and still helpful. Fourth, the book contains both the "dialogue" and "thematic" versions of this classic work.

    It is this fourth element that will ensure the Ofeq edition is an immediate classic and is necessary to any serious study of the Ramchal. The "thematic version" is the one most commonly found in print, and is based on a revised version of the 1740 edition of Mesillat Yesharim from Amsterdam. The dialogue version is based on a 1738 manuscript in the Guenzberg Collection of the Russian State Library in Moscow. This "version" takes the form of a dialogue between a hakham (wise man) and a hasid (a pietist). Although the 1740 edition of Mesillat Yesharim was both generated from this dialogic text and is an abridgement of it, the manuscript was an independent work, not a "draft." One of the geniuses of the Ofeq edition is that it allows readers to toggle back and forth between the two versions and learn from the comparison. Indeed, there is a comparative study of the two versions at the end of the volume. At $35.99 (and 672 pages) this beautifully printed edition is a bargain.

    If you are new to the Ramchal, you might find it helpful to read Derech haShem before trying Mesillat Yesharim. Likewise, I find that the Ramchal's more openly kabbalistic texts 138 Openings of Wisdom and Secrets of the Future Temple: Mishkney benefit both from an introduction to kabbalism and a thorough reading of his other works. Here are a few resources that people may enjoy:

    Resources on the Ramchal